On 5 March 1963, two young artists gave a concert
in Berlin in the ‘RIAS presents’ series. For three years
the radio series had, in conjunction with the Radio Symphony Orchestra,
been giving the opportunity to young artists at the start of their careers,
the opportunity to play with an orchestra. The only proviso was that
they had not previously appeared in Berlin in an orchestral concert.
This exists even to this day as ‘Debut im Deutschlandradio Kultur’
and many renowned musicians have made their debut in this way. These
include Jessye Norman, Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin and Cecilia Bartoli.
The two artists involved in the 1963 concert were the eighteen year
old British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, and the Argentinean pianist
Bruno Leonardo Gelber, who was twenty-one. Du Pré began learning
the cello at the age of four and studied with William Pleeth. She also
had tuition from Casals, Tortelier and Rostropovich. Tragedy struck
in the early 1970s when she developed multiple sclerosis, dying at the
age of forty-two in 1987. Gelber overcame polio to become a concert
pianist and won a scholarship to study with Marguerite Long in Paris.
First on the programme for this disc is the Schumann Cello Concerto.
In 1850, the Schumanns moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf. The change
of surroundings brought about a creative upsurge in Robert, and within
a few months he had composed the Rhenish Symphony
from Goethe’s Faust
, some songs, and the present cello concerto.
Amazingly it was composed in just fifteen days. Schumann was fond of
the cello and played it for a while when a finger injury in 1832 put
an end to his career as a pianist. He never achieved proficiency, but
his dabbling gave him an understanding of the instrument and its possibilities.
His cello concerto is in three linked movements. This both unifies the
work and prevents the irritating habit of audiences applauding after
each movement, a practice Schumann detested.
The Schumann Concerto is a compact work. It has been criticized for
its not very adventurous orchestration. Indeed Joan Chissell, an authority
on Schumann, makes the pertinent comment ‘… for though
discretion is undoubtedly the better part of valour in accompanying
the least penetrating of all solo instruments in a concerto, Schumann’s
excessive caution frequently results in drabness’
. This presents
a problem for the conductor, as the orchestration is very sparse and
exposed in places. Added to this is the flexibility and rubato in the
solo part. Rostropovich even went so far as to ask Shostakovich to re-orchestrate
the work, though I’ve never heard that version to compare.
When first listening to this CD, I was reminded of a DVD documentary
about Jacqueline Du Pré, in which Sir John Barbirolli is interviewed
countering the criticism from some quarters that her playing suffered
from excessive emotion. I will always remember his wise words: ‘when
you’re young, you should have an excess of everything. If you
haven’t excess, what are you going to pare off as the years go
’. As can be expected, du Pré delivers a passionate
and expressive performance. With beauty of tone the concerto is ravishingly
played. The slow movement especially has a pervasive melancholy and
wistfulness. It is truly heartfelt. The conductor Gerd Albrecht rises
to the challenge with flying colours and gives the soloist more inspirational
support than Daniel Baremboim does in the studio recording five years
later. That said, the 1968 EMI recording does not flatter the New Philharmonia
orchestral sound, which seems slightly recessed. In general, I find
the present live performance more engaging and spontaneous than the
studio event. The sound is remarkably good for a mono recording of this
vintage. A similar performance I have from 3 March 1967 with Leonard
Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, live from Carnegie Hall, is
also more free, natural and instinctive than the New Philharmonia version.
Schumann provides an accompanied cadenza at the end of the third movement.
Curiously du Pré inserts her own spectacular cadenza and picks
up Schumann’s cadenza at the end. She does not do this in the
recordings with Barenboim and Bernstein. This is not as unusual as it
may at first appear. Shafran, Fournier and Tortelier added their own
cadenzas at the same juncture.
Brahms composed his First Piano Concerto at the age of twenty-five in
1858, and gave the first performance a year later in Hanover, Germany.
The work had a lengthy gestation period, starting as a symphony, then
a sonata for two pianos, and finally as a concerto in the form we know
it today. It is large in scale and the piano and the orchestra take
on equal roles.
A few months ago I reviewed Gelber in the Brahms Second Concerto with
the NHK Symphony Orchestra. What impressed me with that magisterial
account was Gelber’s formidable technique, enabling him successfully
to achieve his vision and realization. Likewise with Brahms 1, he employs
his prodigious artistry to deliver something of real stature. There’s
tremendous energy here with Albrecht providing sympathetic support and
sustaining the dramatic tension throughout. A good balance is achieved
between the dramatic and the lyrical. The music is thoughtfully paced
with both soloist and conductor having a clear understanding of the
work’s towering architecture.
With first-class liner notes this is an admirable release enshrining
two youthful renditions. These are valuable documents that should be
required listening for collectors of historical instrumental performances.
The disc gave me a great deal of pleasure. The sound, as I mentioned
earlier, is exceptional for its age, and allows the music to emerge
with definition and clarity.
Two youthful renditions of concertos by Schumann and Brahms. Valuable
documents that should be required listening for collectors of historical
Masterwork Index: Brahms
piano concerto 1